Inductee series: The 2001 Lady Bears Final Four team

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The 2000-2001 Missouri State Lady Bears became only the second NCAA Division I team in state history to reach a Final Four. Then-SMS finished with 29 wins and featured Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in women's basketball history.

The 2000-2001 Missouri State Lady Bears became only the second NCAA Division I team in state history to reach a Final Four. Then-SMS finished with 29 wins and featured Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball history.

A team of destiny. That’s arguably the only way to describe the Missouri State Lady Bears of 2000-2001 basketball season.

Put it this way: The team’s jersey numbers added up to 314, which as many know is the area code of St. Louis. It was the site that March of the Final Four.

“We thought, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s meant to be,’” legendary Lady Bear Jackie Stiles recalled of the jersey numbers.

Sure, enough the Lady Bears fought their way to the Final Four, joining the Lady Bears of 1992 as the only teams — men’s or women’s — in Missouri history to attain such success.

The 2001 team will be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame on March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield. It’s part of our Women in Sports Luncheon. (Ticket information below.)

Coach Cheryl Burnett’s next-to-last squad in Springfield refused to go quietly, despite being snubbed as an opening round host in the NCAA Tournament and despite Stiles as college basketball’s unquestioned star.

The Lady Bears received a No. 5 seed and were sent to Rutgers in New Jersey. Nevertheless, a mad, cross-country march to St. Louis commenced as the Lady Bears beat Toledo in the first round, shucked aside Rutgers on its home floor and then traveled to Seattle.

There, Missouri State toppled Duke and host Washington to advance to the Final Four.

Team effort

What a team it was. Stiles, the farm girl from Claflin, Kan., who as a grade-schooler attended Lady Bears summer camps, averaged 30.3 points a game all season and became the all-time leading scorer in Division I history (3,393 points).

But it was clearly a team effort that featured Melody Campbell Stewart, Tara Mitchem Groves, Carly Deer Stubblefield, Dzenata Kadic, Carolyn Weirick, Erica Vicente, Ann Cavey Jameson, Morgan Hohenberger, Erika Rante and Stephanie Busbey Madison.

Lynnette Robinson, Karen Rapier and Robin Meeks were assistants, while Doug Dunn, Brad Coy and Tom Norrell were student managers. Tom Ladd was the broadcaster.

Those Lady Bears earned 29 wins, second in program history only to the 1992 Final Four team’s 31 victories.

The preseason included wins against Louisiana Tech and a home-and-road split against Oklahoma.

Mitchem finished the year with a 12.4 scoring average, second-best on the team. Deer, Kiss, Vicente, Rante and Cavey averaged between 8.1 and 4.2 points.

“It was a special group of girls working together,” said Cavey Jameson, a junior center that season. “We had the end goal in mind to make the Final Four. … The summer before, I don’t know if we worked any harder. But it seemed like in the preseason, something special was going to happen.”

A special run

Team chemistry helped created a lot of memories and victories.

The Lady Bears finished 16-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference and won the Valley tournament. In one game, Northern Iowa double-teamed Stiles immediately after tipoff, and Burnett ordered her to stand near half court, creating 4-on-3 mismatches.

The postseason became wonderful whirlwind.

Mitchem, who earlier in her career transferred from Ohio State, provided a huge lift in the NCAA Tournament opener, scoring a career-high 40 points after Stiles was lost to a concussion.

The Lady Bears also sent a message to doubters, including the selection committee, by knocking off Rutgers two days later in New Jersey. Stiles scored 32 points, and followed with 41- and 32-point performances as Missouri State reached the Final Four.

“I remember when I was a high school senior that I bet my coach that I would play in a Final Four,” Stiles said, adding that she and four other Lady Bears seniors were motivated by fear – fear of the season ending prematurely.

“I really believe that helped us,” Stiles said. “A lot of teams play tight (in the postseason), but we just went for it and gave all we had.”

The season ended in a 81-64 loss to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, but only a week after the Lady Bears returned from Washington as the Ozarks’ newest celebrities.

Fans had greeted the team at the Springfield-Branson National Airport, keeping players there for three hours as Lady Bears fans sought autographs and conversations.

A great memory for a great season from a great team.

“They had to give up so much of themselves for each other,” Burnett said. “The last four games that team played – minus the Purdue game – I have never seen that. The reached their potential and I’m not so sure they didn’t play over it.”

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WANT TO GO?

What: The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame will host the Women in Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation at 11 a.m. on March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield.

Tickets: $40, and sponsorship tables are available by calling 417-889-3100.

Honorees

  • Cheryl Burnett, Centralia native and former Missouri State Lady Bears coach, as a Missouri Sports Legend. A specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway alongside such Missouri greats as Stan Musial, Len Dawson and Norm Stewart.
  • The Lady Bears 1992 Final Four team, the state’s first Division I team – men’s or women’s – to reach the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
  • The Lady Bears 2001 Final Four team, the state’s only other Division I team to reach the national semifinals.
  • Cathy Reynolds, a Springfield native who at age 16 won the Missouri State Championship and went on to play 17 years on the LPGA Tour.
  • Patti Phillips, who for 11 years led the Women Intersport Network for Kansas City and in the past five has been the CEO of the KC-based National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.